When I first created this website, I quickly wrote the tagline “Grieve their loss, my friends, and then join me in exploring how to manage when not all foods fit into your life.” I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but I realize now just how much of nutrition counseling deals with grieving different losses. It’s partly about the loss of different food items that can no longer fit into the diet, but on a deeper level it’s about grieving the loss of a former self. This may be the loss of a healthy or a sick self. Yes, it’s possible, and so normal, to miss your sick self.
Let’s use this wonderful model many of you are likely familiar with created by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Just as in grieving the loss of a person through death or displacement, the stages of grief for the loss of self do not need to move in order and there is no timeline to follow.
1. Denial to Avoid Feelings
Denial is so commonly seen with health conditions. I’ve worked with a number of patients who report chronic diarrhea is just “normal” for them or that severe abdominal pain after eating “has always happened”. Or, very commonly, I’ll have newly diagnosed diabetics try to ignore their diagnosis until complications arise. It’s so hard to accept that our bodies are not functioning the way they should or the way they used to. However, we cannot begin to heal our bodies or feel better until we acknowledge that something is amiss.
2. Anger to Displace Feelings
Dealing with illness or irregularities in our bodies can make us very angry and we have every right to be angry. We can be angry with our healthy peers, angry at our bodies, angry at God/higher power, angry at our genes, and just angry at anything and everything.
Release that anger! Explain to your friends, family, therapist, dietitian, or doctor just how angry you are, express the feeling through artwork or poetry, write it in a journal, or move through the anger in yoga or with a movement therapist. Just don’t keep the feelings in! Also, don’t feel the need to apologize for expressing how much your situation sucks.
3. Bargaining to Control Feelings
As we move through this stage, there is the potential to pick up some negative behaviors to cope with the diagnosis. You may decide that because you have one food allergy, cutting out 5 other foods might somehow make your body tolerate the allergen better. Or you believe that a detox juice cleanse will cure your disease. Perhaps you might decide that working out for a few hours each day might help reverse your diagnosis. Maybe you research a supplement online and decide it’s going to save you.
By all means, explore ways to make yourself feel better, but remember that in the end, you (in most cases) cannot change your disease/disorder/allergy in this way.
4. Depression to Bury Feelings
Similar to anger, depression/sadness is a very valid feeling in this situation. Express your sadness in the same ways listed above for anger. It’s okay to cry. It’s not dumb or silly to cry over the fact that you can’t eat peanuts or eggs or gluten or milk or that you now need to be very conscious of the foods you consume or that you need to start taking medications to control your blood sugar. This is a huge change and you are allowed to stay in bed all day and mope, if that’s what you need during this stage. If the depression persists, seek out professional help.
5. Acceptance When we Face our Feelings
It may take you a very long time to arrive at acceptance. And just because you accept your condition one day, doesn’t mean you’re going to accept it the next. When we accept the loss of our healthy selves, we are finally able to move on. We are able to care for our selves in the ways that we need to in order to live full, meaningful lives despite our new restrictions.